Fear, Self, and Thriving

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Noticing, knowing, and understanding are the source of wisdom. Wisdom is a special kind of insight that informs good judgment and guides right action. This “wisdom effect” holds for almost anything in our field of experience, even (or especially) the things that evoke fear and cause us to question ourselves.

The wisdom and insight that arise from noticing-knowing-and-understanding may be implied in Nietzsche’s words, “what does not kill you, makes you stronger.” It is even more explicit in the less dramatic language of our own John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”

In any case, the specific turn of mind that enables us to generate this insight stems first from a distinct attitude. It’s one of “looking with fresh eyes.” It steps out of and shakes off the negative mood and attitude that travel with fear. It frees us to see what the fear is about. It’s an attitude of dispassionate curiosity.

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This attitudinal turn of mind (not mere intellect) is aptly described by the Persian poet, Rumi, in Guest House. He suggests that we treat all “unexpected visitors” (feelings and concerns) as guests. We are to welcome even our troubled feelings as messengers, for “each has been sent.” They come bearing purpose and meaning.

For many, fear is among the most poignant of debilitating feelings, especially when we awaken to its grip upon us in the morning. Our immediate thought is, “How unbearable. I must get away from this, gain control over it!” The flight response. Of course, it does not work, at least not for long.

Welcoming Fear (the leap of faith)

Especially when our fears and worries become recurrent and disruptive, we must ask ourselves “What have I got to lose by welcoming them as guests who may have a message for me?” In the mere asking the possibility of an attitude shift emerges. It’s aims is humble: “Let me simply see what this is really about. That surely will not 'kill' me, to invoke Nietzsche, and perhaps I’ll learn something.” Rather immediately the feared object becomes bearable as an object of reflection.

What’s happened affectively? Moments earlier fear possessed me, bodily, mentally, emotionally. Now, as it’s transformed into an object of reflection, it softens into lower-intensity anxiety. And as I begin to examine it, it reveals itself more fully. I notice prejudgments, assumptions, and beliefs, many of which now look rather exaggerated and out of proportion, that explain the alarm I felt. In this new light, their absolute facticity and truth become suspect.

The self I was then – overwhelmed, in jeopardy – turns out to be a momentary “state” of being. The tragic, ill-fated trajectory I imagined was only one possibility. I may properly feel challenged by the issues and concerns that emerge from reflection, but I may also find reason to frame them differently, to address them rationally, and to seek help to support my efforts. We discover that a big part of the intensity with which fears register is attributable to the cloak of secrecy that hides them.

The fearful, worried self is often a self in isolation – even if others are physically nearby. When fears grow and are concealed as a regular means of coping, we lose perspective. We may find justification for buffering and re-framing a challenge that might otherwise overwhelm those we lead. However, we can err in overestimating our personal capacity to bear such worries, and we can underestimate the capacity of others to cope and help solve our problems.

Thriving

By mindfully opening ourselves to experience, we’re better positioned to notice, know, and understand. Noticing concerns registration, it’s our sensory capacity to recognize what registers as noteworthy. It includes that which deviates from the familiar, manageable, bumps in the road. We feel it before we know it. But when we notice what we feel, we can immediately treat it as something important to know, to specify for what it is. And as we come to know it in this way, understanding (of implications) deepens.

In arriving at this changed relationship to the feared object, we recognize our malleable capacity for adaptive learning, growth, and development. Our narrative self is anchored in a stock of knowledge. It projects our intentions and conditions our perceptions and actions. Vital self, on the other hand, is much less obtrusive, it's who we are as a live, experiencing subject. It is us as we awaken and evolve in the face of new demands and challenges, and as we discover the limitations of the narrative self.

In this way, vital self thrives and narrative self is continually updated – “Every morning a new arrival.” The settled ways of knowing and understanding (narrative self) provide stability and continuity until they don’t. At that point, we may find that we come up short on ways to adapt. In its more acute form, we feel this moment as fear. It may not feel like a welcome guest initially, but as we notice it rather than act on a flight response, it will tell us what we need to know and understand to thrive. 

What is Your Vitalizing Practice?

What is a Practice?

We all have ways of doing things, ways of going about life and work. They become most easily available as "ways" when they become habitual. Some are acquired in childhood and others are learned as improved ways of being and doing in adulthood. The word “practice” signifies such an approach that is cultivated with deliberate intent, for a purpose, because of its superior virtue.

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Servant Leadership practice, for example, is intended to promote the virtue of service. Moreover, it does this with a distinctive quality of humility that involves using one’s positional power to invert a traditional hierarchy, which is too often intended to serve those in senior executive positions. But senior leaders working from this model of practice see themselves as duty-bound to empower and enable others.

To do so also requires a virtue of moral and emotional maturity, prudential judgment, and practical wisdom. Why? Because those practicing servant leadership must maintain an active sense of their fiduciary duties as corporate officers. They are responsible for preparing individuals, managers, and leaders to act effectively and responsibly with the power and autonomy they’re given in such an organization.

As you can see, this practice involves more than a mere loosening of controls; it involves cultivating a different set of controls. The controls are superior because they free more people at all levels to realize their fullest potential to contribute and make a difference. But it does not simply happen; it’s arguably a more complex way of leading. And it expects more of those to whom power and authority are granted.

A practice, then, is a cultivated way of doing something, an enlightened way of being in one’s role in relation to oneself and others. It implies a rather holistic quality of maturity (intellectual, emotional, social, and moral) that produces practical wisdom and sound judgment. This maturing does not make us infallible, if anything we become more conscious of human fallibility and see the importance of resilience.

What is a Vitalizing Practice?

Let’s observe at this point that any individual person may have reason to cultivate multiple practices to enhance his or her way of living, working, and being. We might have a physical fitness practice that is right for us: it fits our life style; it’s sustainable; it’s flexible enough to accommodate changes in our daily routine, etc. We may also have a parenting practice and work and leadership practices. 

I don’t mean to suggest that every aspect of our lives must be governed by a practice. But insofar as we are reliant on habit to guide much or our actions in life, we may wish to ensure that those habits are virtuous, yield the results we want, especially in our most important life roles. Having said that, a vitalizing practice is the most fundamental of all practices, and it underlies and enhances everything else.

...to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever “model” we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.
This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.
— Wendell Berry

I choose the term “vitalizing” deliberately. Vital means related to life, vitalizing means to infuse with life. The word “life” here is intended to convey not mere subsistence, but fullness of life. It denotes the realization of our potential, qualities of excellence that enable us to live out most fully our essential nature. Whence come these infusions of vitalizing energy for excellence and virtue in living?

The answer, I believe, is from without and from beyond. Therefore, a practice that makes of us a portal for receiving these vitalizing energies is what I would call a vitalizing practice. For me it is a mindfulness meditation practice. For you, it might be prayer or yoga. It could be a practice that operates within a context of religious or spiritual beliefs, but it is not reducible to dogma or philosophy.

What makes a vitalizing practice life-infusing is its capacity to help us realize the felt presence of life. Ritual behaviors and symbols are instruments and prompts. It's the in vivo experiences and the transformative qualities of their felt effects that are the truest markers of vitality. They open us. They calm us. They reveal meaning and possibilities beyond our own invention. They yield insight and understanding without judgment.

Our vitalizing practice may be redemptive insofar as it brings us back to a path of virtue and right action, but the moral effects are free of moralistic judgment. We return to life with greater humility and greater compassion for others. We’re then able to join this grounded sense of being and living to our role and our role-based responsibilities for others. Our other practices are more aligned with virtue and wisdom. 

Right Speech & Good Leadership

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In the 5th century BC, Buddha in the East (India) and Socrates in the West (Greece) were asking "difficult" questions about the meaning of life in pursuit of enlightenment. Both in their own ways discovered that the path to enlightenment requires insight and proper action based on that insight.

To acquire insight, they believed we only need to use our minds, broadly conceived as the capacity for seeing and being curious about what is given in experience. It’s all there if we only remove the blinders of “doing” (habitual action) and simply notice it and examine it with openness and acceptance.

I know, you may be thinking, “That sounds like philosophy, not business management or leadership.” Yes, you are right – well, sort of. It is a philosophical attitude. Attitudes are mental mindsets we can adopt and use for a purpose, in this case, to achieve a considered understanding of something.

Put that way, I suspect most executives and corporate fiduciaries would see some practical relevance for adopting this attitude, especially when addressing important decisions affecting their stakeholders. But then what? We call some managers executives because we expect them to guide action, execution.

Right Action

Both Buddha and Socrates were ultimately quite practical, that is, if we appreciate what it really means to be “practical”, i.e., oriented toward “good” or “skilled”[i] practice. Mindful of this, the practice of a responsible leader at any level, in any role, must be aligned with what is good, right, and proper.

In Buddhist psychology, the practice of skilled leadership leads to good Karma, a pattern of virtue that elevates us. As an example or model for others, such leadership promotes an elevated level of practice in others, which influences culture. And among the most important actions of leadership is speech.

Why? Because almost all action (mental, physical, technical, organizational) is mediated by language and speech. And ancient wisdom offers some particularly good guidance on the unskilled forms of speech that can cause harm and impede effective functioning as a social-organizational system:

  1. Lying – It diminishes our ability to trust relationships, to trust ourselves. When we examine with curiosity the motives behind such unskilled action, we open the way for courageous choices and right action. We thereby place truthfulness at the center of our practice.
  2. Harshness – Words can cause harm. When we speak reactively from feelings of anger, we must discover what lies beneath them. Perhaps we feel hurt, offended, frightened, and/or impatient. We cause others to defend themselves. It divides rather than connecting us.
  3. Backbiting – Whether it’s gossip about others or invidious comparisons that are self-serving, this is an all-to-common temptation in social-organizational settings. As Joseph Goldstein reminds us, we have choices, “words need not simply tumble out of our mouths.”[ii]
  4. Useless Talk – Why is it that we can feel compelled to talk without having anything to really say? It’s frivolous, but its effects are not benign. Our words can quickly become worthless to others and to ourselves when they lack some considered intention, timeliness, and relevance.

As we characterize these patterns of “unwholesome” speech, we find ourselves evoking a reflective pause. We see more clearly what they are, where they come from, and the consequential effects they have upon ourselves, our practice, and others. But we only see and understand if we “accept”.

Acceptance is not resignation. It is not complacency. Rather, it is a compassionate acceptance of our vulnerabilities to imperfect, reactive behavior. It’s acknowledgement that we have “feet of clay” and the opportunity for learning, growth, and further realization of our virtue as a skilled practitioner.

For more on noticing unwholesome speech and unskillful action and making wise choices that promote adaptive development see my paper: Developing at the Inflection Point.  

[i] Socrates was essentially a moral philosopher and would characterize virtuous practice as “good”, while Buddha was a spiritual guide and would characterize virtuous practice as “skilled”.

[ii] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2003). New York: Harper One. I’ve drawn on his work in this article and have adapted it for use in my practice as a psychologist.

Presence and Personal Efficacy

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Reflections on Buddhist psychology with implications for Leadership Practice

The presence I have in mind is temporal (now), spatial (here), and it is nongrasping. It is the purest, simplest way of being. It is without purposive striving and judgment. It is first and foremost a silent witness to experience. And insofar as it is as I describe, it is neither practical nor theoretical, neither, conceptual nor technical. So, if you are a manager or leader why would you even care about it?   

The efficacy I have in mind is indeed practical, and it’s consequential. It is charged with emotional energy that fuels purposive strivings. Its temporal orientation leans into the future, and its spatial orientation charts a trajectory from here to an intended there-place-and-state. In many ways, then, presence and efficacy are diametrically opposed, perhaps most obviously in efficacy’s grasping.

But what is meant by qualifying the notion of efficacy with the term “personal”? Is presence not also personal? And what does it mean to couple these terms, presence and efficacy, in this title? Perhaps answering these questions is sufficient as means to making my purpose clear, for my intentions are ultimately practical and concern the coupling of two virtues.

The Two Virtues

Presence as I’ve described it is most distinctive in what it is not. There is virtue in this. For when I am abuzz with thoughts, desires, and anxious attachments to all that I fear losing, I experience a fullness, but it’s not a fullness of being. It’s a fullness that possesses me and impels me to want, to act and react, often without understanding why. There is no virtue in a life controlled by blind appetitive drives.

The art of cultivating presence is an instrumental virtue. It is the enlightenment of seeing, feeling, and knowing what is here now that is the larger virtue, indeed an end in itself, for “minded” creatures like us. It’s through enlightenment that we free ourselves from unconscious drives, a virtue evidenced both in the joy we derive from understanding and the practical capacity it yields for “right action.”

Only from a mindful state of presence does the world reveal itself to us in its ultimate nature. As these revelations emerge, we’re able to discern right and wrong ways of being in the world, ways that lead to health and vitality, ways that relieve suffering and advance us toward realization of virtue.   

Efficacy in its virtuous form is skilled doing, and it relies upon cultivated habits whose value are seen in what they accomplish. It is personal because as persons, especially as minded beings able to reflect upon the life we live and freely choose the actions we take, it is our chain of acts that define us, that constitute our identity. If presence is skilled seeing, then efficacy is skilled doing.

In the Buddha’s teachings, this is the law of Karma. It states that all our actions have consequences. It therefore concludes that “we are the heirs of our actions.”[i] Efficacy is virtuous, then, when it guides our choices and actions such as to produce desired outcomes with excellence: That includes timeliness, efficiency, and sound prudential judgment, but also truthfulness, fairness, and compassion. 

The virtues of presence and efficacy are coupled in this way: Karmic law recognizes that we are mortal beings who grow, learn, thrive, and pass away through taking actions and making choices. As leaders the consequences of our fiduciary roles affect many others, including future generations. Thus, our efficacy could not be a more personal matter. Nor could it be more virtuous than by cultivating presence.

[i] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (2002). New York: Harper-Collins.

Full-Minded Leadership Presence

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Leadership is practical, it ultimately involves purposive action. It’s the face of our managerial work that engages others and the situation at hand. So, whether it’s a C-level executive on a big stage presenting a bold new vision or an operations manager solving an emergent problem after hours, they lead insofar as they engage both the situation and challenge as well as the people charged with handling it. 

Given the bias for action implied by this characterization of leadership, what is the meaning of mind, let alone full-minded leadership? That’s what I’ll discuss in this short article.

The Mind

Mind in its simplest meaning is conscious awareness. Awareness of what? Well, that depends. The scope of our attentional awareness is quite elastic. It can be reactive or responsive, an important distinction. The former state arises from a constricted scope, often narrowed by stress, strain, or fear. The latter, responsive awareness, implies a breadth of scope, formulation of purpose, and freedom to choose. 

The narrowing of mind can manifest in our thinking, i.e., less reflective and flexible, and less able to “problematize”[1] the presenting situation. Full-minded leadership is just the opposite. It broadens and deepens thought. But the inputs that an open mind draws upon are not simply ideas or concepts produced by the intellect, taught in text books, or embedded in formulaic procedures.

Mind as the Summing Factor

Our rudimentary inputs come from sense experience, but that experience arrives at eyes already trained see what something is and what something means. We’re rather immediately inclined to interpret and judge. We are born into a world and nurtured by parents, teachers, and traditions to make sense of what our senses provide. That is, until those habitual ways of meaning-making fail to work. 

Fortunately, the interpretive, networks of meaning shaped by culture that we adopted naturally are not our only resource for sorting things out. Indeed, that’s where mind in its most distinctive aspect comes in. When we choose to do so, we can attend with curiosity to what we are feeling (emotional mind) and thinking (cognitive mind), and also to our bodily sensations (somatic mind). This further step in mindful attending and inquiry acts like a summing factor, bringing to mind what we are aware of as a whole.

Multiple Pathways, One Mind

Full-minded leadership, then, is our capacity to synthesize the inputs of experience, to intuitively take their lead, follow their semantic and non-semantic sense. Calmness, equanimity, and insight arise and are maximized in this synthesis. It is the task of the leader to translate this understanding into words, bring it into discussion with others, allowing them to question it, and to test its truth and validity. 

In emergent situations opportunities for discussion may not be feasible or appropriate; what’s needed is immediate practical guidance for action. But afterwards there will be time and opportunity for learning conversations. In any case, these multiple pathways of input merge and yield a fuller understanding with practical implications for action that we may not have otherwise anticipated.

Conclusion

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None of this happens when we are in a state of acute stress or beleaguered by chronic stress. Not only are our adaptive capacities arrested under these circumstances, they begin to decline (decompensation). This is illustrated in the Challenge-Development Curve (to the right).  

Mindfulness practices are a vital moderating variable (points B1, D1, and F1) in alerting us to an approaching inflection point and needs for adaptive change. It can be learned, and it may be a basic survival skill in today’s fast-moving world. 

To be sure, this is not mere problem solving, nor is it some “woo, woo” mystical idea of leadership. Its efficacy for mitigating the cumulative effects of stress and for bolstering performance is well established in empirical research. Its benefits include improved cognitive and social-emotional functioning, increased resilience, and greater happiness. Something we could all use, right?  

Finally, there is no better way to model the resilient, adaptive capacity full-minded leadership than to first cultivate a personal mindfulness practice. Others will notice the difference when tense moments arise, when difficult conversations are needed, when the sense of challenge becomes daunting. They’ll welcome the leader’s more composed presence and effect, they’ll want to learn more about how to achieve it themselves. Who knows, you may start a contagion of healthy development!

 

 

[1] An attitude of curiosity that seeks to make sense of a situation while suspending any immediate inclinations of judgment or action. It thereby invokes a reflective pause, allowing inquiry, analysis, hypothesizing and considered appraisal of the situation before acting. This reflective pause is part of adaptive development (see Figure 1).